Archive for Leo Varadkar

Ireland’s New Government

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by telescoper

I remembered this morning that I haven’t posted anything about the news that Ireland has a new Government, so decided to do a quick lunchtime blog on that topic. The election that happened earlier this year left no party with enough seats to form an administration and negotiations to form a coalition were drastically slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, however, members of the three parties involved in drafting the Programme for Government – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party – all ratified the proposal. A vote in the Dáil Éireann to formally approve the new Taoiseach was held on Saturday and a new Government formed. Its Ministers have now all been appointed.

Ireland’s new Taoiseach (the equivalent of Prime Minister) is Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil. He replaces Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael who becomes Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister). Under the terms of the coalition agreement they will swap places after two and a half years of the five year term, i.e. at the end of 2022 (assuming the Goverment survives that long).

This isn’t the kind of government that I wanted because it seems to only to offer more of the same short-sighted and socially divisive neoliberal economic policies that have led to disintegrating public services and increasing levels of poverty and homelessness over the last decade. Increasing GDP growth while at the same time worsening social outcomes is not successful government in my view. Tempering my disappointment, though, I do think the coalition represents a step forward in some ways. In my view there is very little difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in terms of policy, which means that there has been little substantive opposition from one when the other has been in power, which has been the way Irish politics has been for decades. Now that similarity in political complexion has been formally recognized and Ireland now has a proper opposition party in the form of a resurgent Sinn Féin led by Mary Lou McDonald. I know better than to try to predict political developments but I can see Sinn Féin rising in popularity in opposition, probably at the expense of Fianna Fáil as the incumbent parties are unlikely to find the immediate future plain sailing. I think Leo Varadkar will be privately happy that Micheál Martin is Taoiseach for what is likely to prove the toughest phase.

Ireland’s electoral system involves a single transferable vote and I know many people who used their ballot to “transfer left”. The Green Party clearly prospered from such transfers during the 2020 election, but now finds itself propping up a Centre-Right coalition. No doubt many who transferred left are dismayed to find that they inadvertently transferred right. What that does for the popularity of the Greens in future remains to be seen. I would comment however that the Greens have been pretty successful in getting their proposals into the Programme for Government and I welcome many of them.

Another thing well worth mentioning is the creation of a new Minister at Cabinet level with responsibility for Higher Education. That was a Fianna Fáil idea but I didn’t see it in the Programme for Government. There is a little bit of confusion* about what the title of this new position is. When it was first announced it was reported as “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Research” though that seems to have morphed into “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Science”, which has left colleagues in the arts, humanities and social sciences feeling a bit disgruntled. It’s a pity that there isn’t an English word like the German Wissenschaft to use in such general contexts.

*UPDATE: I am reliably informed (by Twitter) that the correct title is “The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”.

Whatever its precise name, the announcement of the creation of this new Ministry has received a cautious welcome from across the third-level sector. I also see this as potentially promising but I think I’ll reserve judgement until we see what it proposes to do. Interesting, though it was a Fianna Fáil policy to create this new cabinet position, the person appointed to it, Simon Harris TD, is actually from Fine Gael and was the Health Minister in the previous administration. I think the general opinion is that he did fairly well in that position, though reading his biography I see that he dropped out of university without getting a degree, which hardly inspires confidence in his commitment to higher education.

This isn’t the sort of Government I voted for, but I hope it can steer Ireland safely through the ongoing crisis reasonably safely. I’ll take it over the dismal collection of crooks and charlatans who are in power across the Irish Sea any day.

Meanwhile, in Ireland…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 17, 2020 by telescoper

It seems an eternity since we had the 2020 general election in Ireland on February 8th because of the intervention of the Covid-19 outbreak, but it’s still been over four months. Now however it seems we might have a new government fairly soon, as a deal has been agreed to form a coalition between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party; between them these parties have 84 seats (not counting the Ceann Comhairle), enough to create a majority in the Dáil Éireann. It’s not quite done and dusted, though, as the Green Party has to ballot its membership and a two-thirds majority is needed to endorse the agreement. We should know next week.

In case you think this delay means that Ireland has been in political crisis since February, it hasn’t really. The constitution makes it clear that if a new government can’t be formed the old one continues until one can (or until another election can be held). Leo Varadkar has continued as Taioseach in the mean time. His popularity has increased in this period, at least partly because as a trained medical person, he is perceived to have handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. It seems that incumbents have generally received the backing of the public when they have coped reasonably with the pandemic. Whether that continues in Ireland remains to be seen. When the truth comes out about how many patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes where they were left to die perhaps opinions will change.

It has taken over four months for the the parties to agree a `draft programme for government’ which you can find here. That document is 139 pages long but largely devoid of concrete commitments and indeed devoid of anything other than vague discussions, platitudes, and `reviews’. At a quick reading I’d say the Greens have been far more effective at getting their agenda into it than Fianna Fáil, perhaps because the latter don’t really have an agenda other than wanting to be in power. The Green initiatives are in my opinion the strongest parts of the programme, but the rest seems to me to be just “more of the same”.

I’d say that the one redeeming factor is the document is the emphasis on stimulus rather than austerity as a way out of the current crisis but of course that may turn out not to be what actually happens.

From the point of view of Ireland’s universities and research community there is little to rejoice. On page 114 you can find this:

Higher and Further Education have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis and we will support the sector through these challenges to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society. In addition, we will continue to support our research community to tackle the social and scientific problems posed by COVID-19 now and into the future.

We are committed to addressing the funding challenges in third-level education. We want a Higher and Further Education sector that sees education as a holistic and life-long pursuit. We will continue to build strong connections with other education sectors and wider society, while recognising our global and environmental responsibilities. It is vital we invest in our Higher and Further Education sectors so we can continue to tackle inequality based on race, gender, and socio-economic background. We recognise the potential for our Higher and Further Education institutions to be exemplars regionally, nationally and internationally.

At a time of great economic uncertainty, when so many people fear for their future employment, we will ensure that Higher Education plays a vital role in our recovery. We will equip students with the skills necessary to secure employment, while preparing for the opportunities and challenges posed by a changing economy, the move to a low-carbon future and disruptive technologies, as well as offering retraining and reskilling opportunities to help people into employment.

Warm words at the start and then a worryingly blinkered emphasis on universities simply as providers of skills training. We do that of course, but we do so much more that Irish governments seem not to recognize.

Later on we get a commitment to

Develop a long-term sustainable funding model for Higher Level education in collaboration with the sector and informed by recent and ongoing research and analysis.

Sigh. There’s been an OECD Report (2004), the Hunt Report (2011), the Cassells Report (2016), etc. How many times will this issue be kicked into the long grass?

The Fianna Fáil `pledge’ to introduce a Minister for Higher Education and Research has, needless to say, fallen by the wayside in the negotiations.

The plan for the new Government is that the plan is as the leader of the largest party in the coalition, Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin will take over as Taoiseach for two years, after which Leo Varadkar will return. This is being referred to as a `Rotating Taoiseach’, which is a pretty apt given that the programme has more spin than substance.

A Note from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 18, 2020 by telescoper

I’m indebted to colleagues from Maynooth University Special Collections & Archives for sending out the following bit of history.

It is now over 100 years ago the 1918 “Spanish ‘flu” influenza pandemic came to Maynooth College. It was officially closed from 8th November until 7th January and 60 students remained in the infirmaries. Over 500 students went home and sadly 11 of these did not survive the pandemic. More details below.

One difference between 1918 and 2020 is that the Spanish flu mainly affected the young. Covid-19 is remarkably different, as these grim mortality statistics from Italy demonstrate:

Nobody at all under the age of 30 has died (so far) of Covid-19 in Italy. It’s the mortality rate for those over 70 that is terrifying. This is just the rate so far. Many of those currently in intensive care won’t make it, so these figures will probably change significantly.

Last night the Taioseach Leo Varadkar gave an unusual address to the nation, which pointed out the gravity of the situation facing Ireland and indeed the world in genderal, which is even more serious that a century ago. In particular he stressed that the COVID-19 emergency would probably last well into the summer.

I don’t agree with Varadkar on many political issues but I think his speech last night was very good. He praised Ireland’s front line medical staff, but also found time to mention the teachers and lecturers who trying their best to deliver remote teaching. Above all, though, he was honest.

I feel very lucky right now, not only to be so far unaffected by Coronavirus but also to be living and working in a small University town in Ireland right now.

There are no obvious shortages of anything and my local (small) supermarket has put out hand wash and wipes for people to use on baskets and trolleys.

We’re also in a Study Week that has at least given us some time to figure out how to move to online teaching by next Monday when we are supposed to start again.

We are probably going to be in this for months rather than weeks but aat least we academics are in no imminent danger of losing our jobs. The same is not true for the folk working in local shops, restaurants and other businesses. We owe it to them to do what we can to support the local community and its economy as much as possible.

In particular, I’ve often remarked that we are lucky in a small town like Maynooth to have quite a few nice cafés and restaurants. Some of these have switched to takeaway or delivery mode during the emergency. I wouldn’t normally use a takeaway service but I will do now, and I suggest my colleagues and friends in Maynooth might do likewise. If we don’t support these establishments now we might lose them for good.

That goes for other local businesses too!

Diversity, Inclusion, Rain and Brexit

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am in a very rainy London. I arrived yesterday for a meeting of the IOP Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was an interesting occasion with many new things about to unfold, tempered by a bit of sadness that the wonderful Head of Diversity at the IOP, Jenni Dyer, is leaving shortly to take up a new job. However will we manage?

Anyway, instead of flying back to Ireland last night after the meeting, I stayed in London last night because today there is an ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, to be followed by a Club Dinner. I’ll be going home to Ireland tomorrow.

Unfortunately the weather has put a dampener on my plans to spend a bit of time wandering around London because it is raining quite heavily and is forecast to do so for the rest of the day. Still, at least the hotel I’m in has WIFI so I can get a few things done this morning before venturing out into the inclement conditions.

Meanwhile the pound is rising against the euro on optimism that there may be a Brexit deal on the horizon after yesterday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar. Nobody knows the details but it seems likely that it’s basically the same as Theresa May’s `deal’ except that the `backstop’ is to be replaced by what is effectively a  customs border in the Irish Sea.  My personal preference would be Boris Johnson thrown in the Irish Sea.

I doubt the Democratic Unionists will be happy with this, but Johnson is probably gambling that enough Labour quitlings will vote for it that he no longer needs their support. Of course, that all depends on whether what was discussed yesterday turns into a concrete legally-binding agreement signed off by the EU.

P.S. Bookies’ odds on a No-Deal Brexit on October 31st have drifted out from 4/1 to 5/1.